Council overrides Street veto

The casino referendum got one step closer to making the May 15 primary Thursday morning when City Council overrode Mayor Street’s veto of their unanimous March 15 vote to place it on the ballot.

If approved by voters, the measure would amend the city charter and could bar any casino from locating within 1,500 feet of any residential neighborhood.

That requirement would effectively banish the Foxwoods casino from its site on the South Philadelphia waterfront and stop the SugarHouse casino from developing its proposed location in Fishtown.

Indeed, if voters approve the measure, initial calculations suggest casinos would be restricted to only a handful of sites, including a corner of the Navy Yard, a spot beneath the Betsy Ross Bridge, and the airport.

Following Thurdsay’s veto and override before a packed chamber filled with casino supporters and detractors, a spokesman for the mayor said the referendum might cause lawmakers in Harrisburg to limit the city’s zoning autonomy. The administration also fears the loss of millions in anticipated revenue and thousands of jobs.

Tad Decker, the gaming control board’s chairman, has said the agency will challenge the legality of the ballot question since it contradicts the state law that legalized slot machines and authorized two casinos in Philadelphia.

Despite Thursday’s vote, the anti-casino movement faces more obstacles. City Solicitor Romulo L. Diaz Jr. has suggested that the anti-casino measure conflicts with state law, and could be struck down by the State Supreme Court, where many feel a casino fight is inevitable.

Another obstacle is the May 15 primary vote itself. Will the voters ban casinos? Casino-Free Philadelphia activists say they have been preparing public education campaign to counter any public relations effort by the casinos.

Activists believe they have public opinion on their side. A poll of 500 residents commissioned by Casino Free Philadelphia suggests that 79 percent of Philadelphia voters support prohibiting casinos within 1,500 feet of residential communities, schools, playgrounds, and places of worship.

Terry Paylor, block captain of the 300 block of Durfor Street in South Philadelphia and an anti-casino activist, said Thursday’s vote felt more like victory than the first vote. “I don’t believe there is any avenue after this. I think now the referendum is on the ballot,” she said.

In a related matter, Councilman Frank DiCicco, whose district includes both casino sites, said a 2002 ordinance on the books that is designed to mitigate noisy nightclubs in Fishtown and Northern Liberties and prohibits “businesses with entertainment of guests and patrons as the main use,” would effectively block the SugarHouse Casino project. The ordinance would not affect the Foxwoods plan.

Whether this city zoning ordinance can trump the state’s authority remains a question.

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